Wondering how folks at the gym can drop into pistol squats easily, while you feel you’ll never have the control or balance?
Lucky for you all you need is a quality pistol squat progression and some patience – let me show you the progression and you just add the patience and you’ll be good to go.
What Are Pistol Squats?
Pistol squats are basically a squat done on one leg by extending the other leg straight out in front of you and letting it hover off the ground.
The top half of the pistol range of motion is no problem for most. Most people can pretty easily start to lower down into the move.
Maybe you’ve even tried this. You’re feeling confident as you get going, lowering down with control, feeling pretty steady.
But for most people, the trouble arises in the bottom range.
When you get down to the bottom, you start to feel shaky and stuck.
You’re not really sure how to get out of it and it feels like your muscles just aren’t listening to you.
You do what most people do at this point – use momentum and bounce through the bottom half of the range, contorting your body to get back up.
Eventually, you get out of there, but it isn’t pretty – neither in looks or in what it’s doing for your body.
Why Make Pistol Squats a Goal?
Pistol squats can be intimidating, but trust me – they’re great for just about everybody.
In fact, one study found that a program consisting of modified pistol squats and other squat variations helped increase physical independence and create better function in daily living activities in a group of elderly subjects .
If they can benefit from pistols, why can’t you?
There are 3 key areas of pistol squat benefits that we’ll discuss – mobility, balance, and strength.
3 Key Benefits to Pistol Squats
Pistol Squat Benefit #1: Strength
The pistol squat is one of very few lower body bodyweight exercises that will help you build true strength.
This might sound like a big claim, but it’s simple.
In this move, you’re squatting your entire bodyweight on one leg. There simply aren’t many other exercises that require the same level of strength through such an extensive range of motion.
And pistol squats not only build squatting muscles, like your glutes, quads, and hamstrings, but they also build strength in the muscles working to lift your leg on the opposite side.
This means your iliopsoas, which crosses your hip to run from your spine to your upper leg, and your rectus femoris, the only quadriceps muscle that also crosses your hip , also receive a powerful training stimulus.
With pistols, all your major leg muscles are getting stronger through a big range of motion with one simple move.
Pistol Squat Benefit #2: Balance
The pistol squat can be used to improve balance both from a “wobbly” perspective as well as from a muscular balance perspective.
Balance in terms of being able to stay stable and steady will improve as you learn to master this move, which requires great control and stability on one leg.
This is no small gain. Improving your balance can help protect you from injuries.
For example, one study found that a balance training program reduced the risk of ankle injuries among high school athletes .
Plus, pistol squats are a good tool for identifying single leg balance issues.
In pistols, there’s no hiding if one leg has better balance than the other. You’ll be hit in the face with the info as soon as you try.
But knowledge is power. You can’t work to correct an imbalance until you know it’s there.
What’s more, pistols are great for strengthening muscular balance.
Because this move is so good at recruiting all sorts of leg muscles, it can help even out muscular imbalances – those places where you’re relying on a preferred muscle more than you should, which can also lead to injuries and pain because it’ll be clearly shown if your muscles are out of balance from a strength or mobility perspective.
Also check this article on how to train your vestibular system to improve the coordination between movement and balance.
Pistol Squat Benefit #3: Mobility
The pistol doesn’t just require the mobility and flexibility to squat down though this deep range of motion – it requires full range of CONTROL through this motion.
I like to define mobility as your ability to bend, whereas flexibility is your ability to be bent.
You’ve got to actively control your movements through hip flexion, knee flexion, and ankle dorsiflexion (not just allow yourself to passively drop into them) to master the pistol squat.
These 3 key benefits of pistol squats – mobility, balance, and strength – are also the 3 areas you’ll need to focus on building so that you can do the move in the first place.
3 Part Pistol Squat Progression
I’ve been doing the pistol squat for years, but have only been doing it well for the past few months.
When I first started doing it, mobility was my issue, particularly in my hips.
But I was able to address my hip mobility issues using my 3D Flexibility approach and they’re now good to go.
However, it wasn’t until a few months ago when I came up with the Midline Muscle Activation Drill that fixed the issue that had really been holding my Pistol back: BALANCE.
When I stood on my right I displayed a variation of the classic Trendelenburg sign where instead of my pelvis dropping on one side, my hips shift over the foot on the ground, which moves the centre of mass of my upper body over the foot.
While it worked to keep me standing, it’s the body compensating for poor muscular control and because there’s no control, any little deviation would cause me to fall over.
I finally figured out that my issue was coming from 2 areas: my right hip adductors and the medial muscles of my right foot and ankle and the drill you’ll discover addresses both.
So even if you have no desire to do the Pistol Squat, if you’ve got poor balance on one leg where your hip tends to shift over or you go over on the lateral aspect of your foot/ankle, the Midline Muscle Activation Drill is your solution.
Pistol Squat Progression Part 1: Mobility
The first part of the pistol squat progression will focus on mobility.
I’ve included one exercise to train mobility at each joint involved in the pistol – the hips, knees and ankles – but there are an endless number of exercises and drills you can use.
Hips: Standing Active Hamstring
This first move will increase mobility in your hips while also strengthening both your hip flexors and your rectus femoris of the leg that’s lifted.
- Find something that you can rest your leg on that’s both stable and the proper height. Experiment until you find the right spot!
- Start with one foot outstretched on the surface
- Stand up straight and contract to lift the heel off the surface for 5 seconds
- Relax your foot back on the surface so that you feel a mild stretch, holding for 5 seconds
- Release the stretch and contract your hamstrings to drive your heel down into the surface for 5 seconds
- Relax again and feel the stretch for 5 seconds
- Keep alternating – lift, relax, drive down, relax – for 3 full cycles
- Switch legs and repeat for 2 sets of 3 cycles on each leg
This “proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation” or PNF exercise will allow you to strengthen the hamstrings and antagonizing muscles in an extended range of motion.
And if you really want to mobilize your hammies, check out this article for a couple more techniques you can do.
Knees: SB Supine Squat
This move trains the full range of knee flexion so that your quads have the mobility to handle the pistol.
- Sit down on a stability ball
- Walk your feet forward as you lean back to achieve a supine position on the ball
- In this position, roll forwards so that your knees travel over your toes and you finish in a fully knee flexed position
- Now, contract your quads and push into your feet to roll backwards on the ball until your legs reach a 90° angle
- To go back, actively contract your hamstrings and pull your body forwards into the knee flexed position
- Repeat this 10 reps per side
Ankle: Deep Squat Pivot
This exercise will lock in the deep squat position by training both your hip flexors and your ankle dorsiflexors.
- Come into a pivoted deep squat position by placing your right foot and the ball of your left foot flat on the ground, keeping your left heel elevated
- Bend your left knee down toward the ground as you pivot toward your right side
- Dorsiflex your right ankle to lift your right toes off the ground
- Hold for a few seconds before you lower the right foot flat on the ground, continuing to dorsiflex the ankle
- Pivot to switch sides, completing 3 reps per side
Pistol Squat Progression Part 2: Balance
This 3-part move will help you improve your one-leg balance.
Midline Muscle Activation Drill (for 1-Leg Balance)
- Set up a band low to the ground and step in with your right foot
- Loop the band just above your knee and step away until you feel slight resistance
- Spread your toes to prepare
- Stand on your right foot, letting your left leg hover
- Press the ball of the foot and the big toe mound into the ground as you balance
- Hold the balance for between 30 seconds and 1 minute before switching sides
- Balance on your right foot
- Step back into a lunge with your left foot
- Lower down into a split squat, bending your left knee down to the ground and then raising it back up
- Resist the pull from the band on your right knee to maintain proper alignment
- Do 10 slow reps, then switch sides
- Balance on your right foot
- Step back with your left foot and lower into a reverse lunge
- Lift back up to standing and repeat for 10 reps
- Balance on your right foot
- Keep your right knee straight as you hinge at your hips, lifting your left leg out behind you
- Lift back up and complete 10 reps
- Switch sides
Pistol Squat Progression Part 3: Strength
Before attempting the pistol squat, you need to make sure you can pass a strength baseline.
If you can’t do a full range front squat with half of your bodyweight, you shouldn’t try to do pistols, simply because you lack the basic strength to do so properly.
Work on strengthening your front squats and other parts of the progression until you’ve built up enough strength to safely move on.
Slow Bottom Range Squats with 1/2 Bodyweight
- Use kettlebells or a barbell to load up half your body weight
- Lower down into a front squat with 3-3-3 tempo: take 3 seconds to lower down, pause at the bottom for 3 seconds, then take 3 seconds to come back up
- Work yourself up to 5 reps
- Set up with your right leg on a box and your left leg off to the side
- Bring your arms out in front of you to help balance as you drive into the right foot, bringing yourself all the way up until both legs are straight
- Lower down with control and repeat, working up to 5 reps per leg
Bottom Range Pistol Holds
- Come down into a squat, supporting yourself with your right hand behind you
- Start to straighten out your right leg and extend it as you reach both arms out in front
- Hold for 30 seconds on each leg
Assisted Pistol Squats
- Hold onto rings or a TRX strap with your right hand
- Extend your right leg out in front of you and start to lower down into a pistol squat
- Try to use as little assistance as possible!
- Complete 5 reps on each side
Then, it’s time for the full Pistol Squat!
Work through the progression, taking it slow and continuing when you’re ready.
Before you know it, you’ll have mastered the pistol squat and begin seeing big gains in your strength, balance, and mobility.
Not too bad for one simple move you can do wherever you are.